A Snail’s Pace


Yeung and Hayes hope to document how many and which native snail species are left. They pay special attention to lesser-known snails, such as those in Puctidae family, nicknamed “dot snails” because they measure only one millimeter. Yeung claims a preference for anything under five millimeters in shell height. “I’m short and I’m always for the underdog,” she says. “Plus, they’re absolutely cute when you magnify them.”

Tracking down snails requires indoor and outdoor expeditions. Yeung, who works for Bishop Museum, travels worldwide to search for Hawaiian shells in the bowels of august institutions, where uncataloged specimens collect dust in drawers. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” she says. “You have to go through papers published in the late 1800s and early 1900s to see if the material you have is what you think it is. When you identify one, you’re excited.”

Searching for wild snails is even more thrilling. Yeung and Hayes catch helicopters to remote summits, rappel into plunging gulches, and camp beside pristine bogs. On the steep slopes of West Maui, they found a relatively common species, Succinea baldwini (nicknamed “snot in a hat” for its phlegm-like appearance.) They also turned up several new, undescribed species.

“Unfortunately, snails like wet weather,” says Hayes, who has hiked through many a cloudburst toting a forty-five-pound backpack and stooping every few feet to inspect leaves. Finding cryptic crawlers the size of a pinky fingernail in intermittent downpours is no easy task. The malacologists use sieves to locate small snails hiding in leaf litter, soft-touch forceps to gently handle them, and jeweler’s loupes to eye their markings.

“The shells are so small and fragile,” says Yeung. “You wouldn’t want to touch them with your fingers; you’d crush them.” The days of indiscriminate collecting are long past for these endangered species.



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